Currently there exists no consolidated, general theory of collaboration (GTC). Such a theory could provide a common language and framework for those seeking to better understand and expand the collaborative aspects of any given field of human endeavour. Additionally, a GTC would provide a body of knowledge for those developing collaborative software and other design based enterprises to draw on.
- LDI:General theory of collaboration - a collaborative research project to develop a GTC
By explaining more phenomenon, with increased economy, a general theory provides more scientific power. For example, General Theory of Relativity, General Systems Theory etc.
References to theories of collaboration
Although there are very few references to a general theories of collaboration online (see External Links below), one such reference  claims that any comprehensive theory of collaboration must address:
- the meaning of collaboration itself;
- the auspices under which a collaboration is convened and the role of intervention in directing social change;
- the implications of collaboration for environmental complexity and organizational control over the environment; and
- the relationship between organizations' self-interests and the collective interests present in a collaborative alliance.
Directions for inspiration
Collaboration is a subject of research in many diverse and disparate fields. It is possible that through transdisciplinary research (such as Meta Collab) a GTC may emerge simply be bring existing theories to the foreground. In the meantime, inspiration may be drawn from the following bodies and traditions of research.
Perhaps the 'ology' a GTC would most likely to belong to, is sociology. Concerning itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions, research done in this area may shed much light on the process of collaboration.
Karl-Erik Sveiby did a survey of global business in 2002 to measure collaborative climate against different demographics. His survey concluded: "Collaborative climate tends to improve with age, physical proximity, education level and managerial role. It is generally better in the private sector than the public sector. Collaborative climate seems to peak at the mid-size firm level. Employees tend to experience a U-formed appreciation of the collaborative climate: very positive at recruitment, then deteriorating and later (among the survivors) improving again."
Ethnography refers to the holistic, qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnographic studies of collaboration in its context of manifestation, might also provide valuable insights into the process from an 'eye level' perspective.
As a social animal, the human being's behaviour is per definition a form of collaboration according to the standard dictionary definition - 'working together with one or more in order to achieve a common goal'. From this perspective, collaboration is a naturally occurring phenomenon, embedded in our DNA. Darwin argue that cooperation and collaboration must have evolved as a evolutionary advantage.
It is from this orientation that for a general theory we could look to biology (wp). Collaboration as an evolutionary force runs somewhat counter to traditional Darwinian notions of 'survival of the fittest (wp)'. This line of inquiry has been explored in some depth in Robert Wright's book, Nonzero:The Logic of Human Destiny. In the view that this position holds, cooperative nonzero sum games (see Game theory) are a counterpoint to competitive zero sum games, filling a space sometimes referred to as 'Darwin's blind spot.' 'Darwin's blind spot' refers to the perceived over reliance upon competitive, 'survival of the fittest' theories to account for all of the variation attributed to evolution, in particular, group and multilevel selection theory (wp).
Collaboration may be instinctive and selected-for in evolutionary terms because it succeeds. But we collaborate not because it succeeds, necessarily, but because it's fun. True collaboration, in hunting, in the arts and music, in sports, in raising children, is a joyous experience, and gives you a feeling that you cannot get from any individual pursuit. That feeling is the remarkable sense of collective accomplishment. We did that.
In finding similarities and differences in the nature, methods and motivations of collaboration across any and every field of human endeavour. The answer to that not too modest question depends on what exactly is meant by endeavour.
Suppose endeavour is understood as any economic activity, then economics teaches us, that:
- the nature of collaboration is either market transactions or decision making in a hierarchy to coordinate the allocation of scarce resources in production, distribution of income and finally consumption;
- the methods of collaboration are clearing of markets trough price adjustments on the one hand and control of information on the other hand performed by rational acting agents;
- the motivation of collaboration is pursuit of self interest.
This line of thought originates in Adam Smith's 18th work "An inquiry in the causes and nature of the wealth of nations", and all subsequent classical and neo-classical economics.
References to GTC
- Mark Elliott's PhD dissertation includes a section, Towards a General Theory of Collaboration which maps out core components of collaboration in all contexts.
- Review of Research Finds that Theories of Collaboration are Incomplete ' A review of research finds 6 distinct explanations for collaborative alliances...'
- Improving Collaboration Theory Means Answering Several Important Questions ' A review of research finds unanswered questions that any general theory of collaborative alliances must be able to address...'
General theories in general
- Two Kinds of General Theories in Systems Science - an article discussing the merits of different kinds of general theories within the systems science domain.